Seventy Years

On the fifth of Iyar 5708, corresponding to the 14th of May 1948, the die was cast. David ben Gurion declared the establishment of the Jewish State. The streets were euphoric, but in reality it was a huge gamble. The newborn Jewish State was stuck with an Arab population from within, waiting to repeat the pogroms of 1929 and 1936, and the Jews were also surrounded and outnumbered by bitter and better-equipped enemies from without.

At this point, there was not much of a choice. The declared goal of the Zionist organizations, who were the dominant political leadership of the Yishuv, was the establishment of a Jewish State, and since the British left a vacuum, the Jews and Palestinians were pitted against each other.

Bechasdei Hashem, the Jews were victorious, but at a terrible price. The War of Independence left behind thousands of bereaved parents, widows and orphans, besides those who were maimed. In addition, the main holy sites of the Jewish people became inaccessible. The Old City of Yerushalayim with the Kosel Hama’aravi, Chevron with the Me’aras Hamachpelah, Kever Rochel and Kever Yosef were torn away. This permanently shifted the center of the State to Tel Aviv, a city that gradually secularized and influenced the character of the emerging State.

The Six-Day War changed this reality, at least to a degree. The open nissim that saved the population and restored Jewish control to the rest of the land up to the Jordan River, created a spiritual awakening. As the Gerer Rebbe, the Lev Simcha, zy”a, phrased it, a hisorerus for teshuvah was bestowed from Heaven, and he urged everyone to be part of it. But there were and still are many people who identify with Tel Aviv while paying lip service to Yerushalayim.

The State flourished beyond any expectations. Israel is today a dominant force in the world in almost every area. It has political leverage, it is on the forefront of all sorts of medical and technological innovation, state-of-the-art agriculture and intelligence, and the economy (at least for some) is booming.

This came as well with a hefty price tag. Israel is probably the only modern country that from the day of its inception has been in a semi-active state of war, facing existential danger and continuous threats to the lives of not only soldiers but also to civilians through terror attacks and missile barrages. This has consequences on many levels. First, almost every Jewish family has been directly affected by this reality, having lost a family member either in the army or in an act of terror; severely disabled veterans or victims of terrorism are also commonplace. Then there is the psychological impact of a nation that holds its breath, anticipating the next, escalated round of terror or warfare. Not surprisingly, people weary of war may harbor a delusional hope for peace.

History’s hindsight is only beneficial if it prepares us for the future. Therefore, while the historian or ideologist might try to justify the sacrifice to establish a state, for the realist — who is consequently a pragmatist — this question is irrelevant.

The issue is the effect that the Jewish State in its current status has on the Jewish people at large and, in particular, on the Torah-observant community.

Eretz Yisrael is the natural place for all Jews and the presence of Jews in their land, not ruled by others, is certainly desirable. Furthermore, Eretz Yisrael is today the main Torah center of Jewry. Educational centers from every stream of observant Jewry exist all over the country. The spiritual experience of living in Eretz Yisrael, for those who are suited for it, is unparalleled. That the existence of a Jewish State – more by default than by choice – contributed to this phenomenon, is a fact.

But there is another side to the coin. For all practical purposes, the State is the face of the Jewish people. This is not only true for the unaffiliated Jew or the nations of the world, but in many ways for the Torah-true Jew as well.

Anti-Zionism is the current codeword for anti-Semitism, and public protests in front of the United Nations about the secularization of the Israeli government do not really change this fact. That the founders of the State were under the erroneous impression that a secular or semi-secular Jewish State would eradicate this syndrome proves only that they unfortunately thought that they could escape the Jewish fate and destiny. Not so — Hashem runs the world and He uses this tool to remind us that we are still in Galus, with or without a supportive administration in the White House. The Israeli army is capable of performing brave and extremely skilled campaigns, provided that the umos haolam, the nations of the world, permit it in accordance with standards uniquely applied to the Jewish State. It goes without saying that other nations, including those who impose those standards on Israel, may commit atrocities of the worst sort when it suits their needs.

Thus, although the Israeli national anthem proclaims the realization of the Zionist dream, “lihiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu,” living as free people in our land, the State did not turn us into a real am chofshi. Additionally, “chofshi,” literally “free,” has in modern Hebrew a dual meaning, an insidious one, namely free of the yoke of Torah, which was a proclaimed dogma of secular Zionism. Thankfully, despite the attempts of social engineering, stripping thousands of olim from their adherence to Torah, Israel became a catalyst for the resurgence of Torah and mitzvos. In fact, the exemption of chareidi youth from the army, partially to prevent any possible influence on others, resulted in an unexpected phenomenon. Instead of the Torah world fading into oblivion, this presented the perfect opportunity for the re-establishment of the olam haTorah and yeshivos after churban Europa.

The main political issue in Israel is obviously its handling of the Palestinians in the so-called West Bank and Gaza. The political left insists on a two-state solution for the sake of preserving the Jewish character of the State, possibly endangered by such a demographic shift. This is true if the character of the State is the ethnic secular Jew, whose values are prominently displayed on Yom Ha’atzmaut by the act of knocking a plastic hammer on someone else’s head — as anyone who visits Israel on its day of independence can witness. In that case, the Kosel Hama’aravi and the rest of the holy places are irrelevant to a Jewish State.

Then there is the other extreme: Those who for religious and semi-messianic reasons classify the current State as a holy entity. As such, they prioritize a prohibition against conceding any land or authority that would affect its sovereignty at all costs. This causes them to confuse obvious priorities.

But let the truth be said: Yes, as mentioned earlier, we now merit to live in Eretz Yisrael, among Jews and governed by Jews. It has proved to be a haven for people who were running for their lives, and the timing of the establishment of the State might have been, as the Brisker Rav, zt”l, phrased it, a “smile” from Heaven, an opportunity to improve the conditions of the Jewish people, that was not properly utilized.

But the Torah has proved its ability to have the Jew survive in galus, even under terrible persecution. As such, the inner strength that Hashem provided us through Torah can withstand many tests, even if this haven turns sometimes into a test of galus — as Rav Dessler, zt”l, coined it — imposed by an erev rav. There is an element of this face of Jewry that every now and then gives a new interpretation to the biblical phrase of “rak hakisei egdal mimcha,” for a constant internal power grab, when egoistic reasons may dictate policies that endanger the lives of young and old.

We might remember that we were thrown out of our Land because we thought that we were running the show. This was the ignorance of the misyavnim — the Hellenists — and the arrogance of the biryonim who “knew better” than Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai and the elders of their generation. We paid a dear price for this. The Beis Hamikdash was destroyed and we are since then again in galus. It was only due to the humility and foresight of Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai, asking the Romans to allow him to establish the center of Torah in Yavne, that ensured the continuity of the Jewish nation and its priority for Torah learning until Hashem grants us the zechus to live a life of Torah, close to Him, in Eretz Yisrael without shibud malchuyos.

This is the simple truth. This is not minimizing the appreciation and admiration for young people who are ready to serve in the army and pay the ultimate price. Nor do we underestimate the pain of bereaved parents and family. But this truth sets the parameters according to the mesorah from Sinai.

The framework of a Jewish State also leaves us, the Torah-true community all over and particularly in Eretz Yisrael, with a reminder that we must rise to the occasion to fulfill the obligation of Kiddush Hashem, spreading Torah and yiras Shamayim with all our resources. This is part and parcel of the mitzvah “ve’ahavta l’reacha kamocha,” and will hopefully create the necessary achdus for our Geulah shleimah.

We pray that Hashem will protect us and lead us towards the true redemption as the Neviim, our Prophets, assured us.